Regina Stewart let her son Jeremy go first, following him up the aisle, up a small set of stairs and across the stage in front of thousands. Her husband followed close behind. She shook the superintendent’s hand. She shook the principal’s hand. She looked out at the crowd, these thousands of people who supported her when she felt sick to her stomach with grief, and then clasped her hands to her mouth. She looked up to the heavens, and with a smile, she waved to her son Chris.
There were three empty seats at Shenendehowa High School’s graduation Friday. But even though Chris Stewart, Deanna Rivers and Nick Cammarata weren’t at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to fill them, the fallen teenagers were very much a part of the final day the 725 members of the class of 2013 would ever spend all in one place.
It started with the honorary diplomas presented to their families. Then it was the various remarks — by the senior class president, the principal, the valedictorian, the board president, the class treasurer and the class secretary. Then it was the chanting and the senior class gifts. More tangibly, it was the hundreds of cars sporting Shen-Shaker decals, the parents sporting Chris and Deanna buttons and ribbons, the bracelets, the stray tear, the creaky voice recalling the accident.
“Our legacy is best represented by the optimistic and encouraging behavior we have carved out of the truly horrific events that have challenged us over the years,” said senior class president Meghan McElligott to her fellow graduates. “Nick Cammarata, Chris Stewart, Deanna Rivers and the manner in which they led their lives will continue to inspire us. And we never could have overcome the obstacles we did unless we had adopted their same positive outlook on life. In short, we are who we are today because of the manner in which we chose to handle their tragedies. Their legacy is that they made us all stronger.”
It was a beautiful day for a graduation. The skies were clear, the sun was high and the grounds at SPAC were full of smiling grads posing for pictures, parents carrying colorful bouquets, little sisters twirling in dresses and little brothers chasing each other on the lawn.
Nearly seven months after seniors Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers — the loveable football captain and the always-gracious softball star — died in a car accident on the Northway, the school community they left behind has grown in ways no one ever could have expected or wished for.
That growth taught high school Principal Donald Flynt everything he needed to know about friendship, perseverance and resiliency.
“From this class, I have personally learned that it is not what you have in your life that matters but rather who you have in your life that is important,” he said. “That it’s not the circumstances that happen to people that are important, it’s how they handle those circumstances that matter. From this class, I’ve learned that some things can happen in a matter of minutes and they give you heartache for life, that either you control your perspective and attitude or they control you. From this group of seniors I’ve learned that maturity has much to do with the types of experiences that you’ve had and what you’ve taken from them and how you’ve handled them and less to do with how old you might be.”
And while Flynt wasn’t crazy about the seniors’ near-obsessive dependence on social media and technology, or their overuse of the word “like” in conversations, he was proud of the challenges they had overcome and said they had wisdom and empathy beyond their years.
“From this class, I’ve learned that no matter how hard your heart is aching, the world can’t and won’t stop for your grief,” he continued. “And that no matter how you try to protect your students, they will eventually get hurt and you will get hurt in the process.”
Valedictorian Sarah Yang spoke of her generation’s rush to judgment and how her class has changed since the December crash. They had learned to love deeper, be kinder and come together as a stronger community than before. They had great role models to learn from, too.
“Chris was a person known for reaching out to people whether he knew them or not,” said Yang. “Deanna was a girl known to go out of her way to help her friends and stand up for people whether she knew them or not. I believe there is much we can learn from the examples that Chris and Deanna left us and that the world would be a better place if we chose to hold back our judgments and extend that extra bit of kindness whether we know people or not.”
No one should forget Nick Cammarata, either, she said. Cammarata died in 2009 after a four-month battle with leukemia. He was 13, an eighth-grader at Gowana Middle School in Clifton Park and a member of the class of 2013. He gave “nothing but kindness” to others, she said.
And although not a member of their class, Luke Romano was an inspiration to many of this year’s seniors “to keep fighting,” she recalled. He died in 2011 after a seven-year battle with leukemia. He was 17.
As part of its class gift, the class of 2013 donated $1,500 to the Plainsmen Junior Football League in honor of Stewart; $1,500 to the Deanna Marie Rivers Foundation in honor of Rivers; and $1,500 to the Nick’s Fight To Be Healed Foundation in honor of Cammarata.
The Shen community has been through a lot, but they’re stronger for it, said Board of Education President Mary Blaauboer. They left the dark days of December behind and emerged with an anthem that has been cried, shouted, whispered and prayed all around the Capital Region since.
“What do you believe?” she asked them.
As salutatorian Colton Robtoy led the class in a “We believe that we can win” chant and the senior class clapped along, a single voice rose up from the crowd. A green-robed senior stood up and roared with all his might, his face red from the force and emotion of it: “I believe!”
The seniors responded: “I believe!”
“I believe that!” he roared again.
The crowd’s echo and then: “I believe that we!”
“I believe that we can!”
“I believe that we can win!”
They joined in: “I believe that we can win! I believe that we can win! I believe that we can win!”
And the chant continued with cheers from parents and whistles from friends and smiles from the seniors who felt that their bond would be forever.